Tribalism

There is an interview with Agnes Martin, in which she claims to have let go of all the theories in an attempt to keep her mind clear. It was more involved than that: she wanted to keep her ego out of the way when she was inspired to paint so that the original message remained unsullied.

The innocence and purity of this is blindingly beautiful to me. But that’s not actually what I wanted to talk about. I could write reams about Martin, her neuro-eccentricity, her work, our connection. But perhaps another day.

Today, I want to talk about that interview, and in particular when she says she let go of all the theories. Even evolution.

Ah, yes. To let go of evolutionary theory to embrace mindfulness feels like an impossible climb up the highest mountain. When I have a difficult problem, my automatic response it to run it through several filters to see what remains. The most important filter I use is one that resembles evolutionary psychology, my best tool for helping me make big decisions.

But one cannot be mindful and still filter experience through various theories.

The evolutionary psychologist, Robert Wright, is holding an online course on overcoming tribalism through the Buddhist site Tricycle. I have read one of Wright’s books and get along well with his way of thinking and writing, and so I paid close attention to his announcement. Mindfulness over tribalism is something I have been struggling with lately, particularly with my extended family challenges. My instinct says one thing, but Buddhist teachings say another. How does one resolve such a conflict?

It’s not lost on me that this is an important topic of discussion for our time. I’m thinking here of political turmoil, and the move towards tribal thinking and away from humanism. But it is also an issue I need to sort out on the personal level, and the personal always seems more immediate and pressing. So, I have been waiting for an epiphany. Some guidance. A message. But I’m beginning to think I may need to go out and find one.

I suppose it really is true that if you let all the theories go, if you push your emotions and interpretations to the side, you can see things how they are. And presumably you will also know how to respond with compassion and kindness. But to let go of evolutionary theory? Ah, the complexities of the human condition!

Speaking of complexities, I feel compelled to mention that my oldest child and I are regular partners in a mood disorder dance. Family dynamics are complicated, and exponentially so with a neuro-eccentric member. But two? Half of all members with a neuro-eccentricity? Suffice it to say, shit gets really crazy in our house, with one triggering the other and spiraling out of control, and back and forth, and hypersensitivities meaning no-one can sneeze without someone thinking there was some hidden meaning behind it. Sometimes I wonder if I will be able to survive her adolescence. But just as my despondency reaches its zenith, we have a magical moment. Yes, our family is often agitated and dysregulated, but we are also colorful, vibrant, creative folks with an incredibly deep connection. I’m not sure how we’d do this without that silver lining.

Stress

My stress level is dangerously high. I know this not because I feel it—I generally have no sense of how anxious or stressed I am until I find myself hyperventilating behind a mannequin in a shopping mall. This time I know I am stressed because I have broken out into a rash.

My first explanation for the rash was the Lamictal—my doctor is easing me into a therapeutic dose slowly so as not to cause the rare but fatal rash that some folks get from the medication. So, of course I thought that was the cause. But I prefer Lamictal to lithium so much that I searched for and found another potential cause: that new soap I used for the first time that morning. Or maybe it’s the weather—like living in an armpit. Or lack of sleep—my partner has been away again, which always throws me back into mama sleep (up every hour or so to check on things which seem completely unimportant the next day). Or perhaps dehydration.

But only later, much much later, I remembered that time before my first solo art exhibition. Everyone had remarked on how serene I seemed, and I felt serene too. But the day of my exhibition, I woke up with a nasty full-body rash. And then I knew that I was not at all serene, but falling apart from the inside-out. Very much like I am doing now.

I was surprised to discover that the extended family dramas I have been living in for weeks and months, one of which is now coming to a head, could have turned me upside-down. I felt in control. I had things under control. Didn’t I?

I think I have talked about and worked on little else than these two big family problems for the last two weeks. It’s like an emotional seesaw: one day, the problem of alcoholism and abuse preoccupies my thoughts and engages my actions, and the next day the problem of child abuse and neglect and a teen pregnancy (coming to term today) requires my deepest consideration.

I have been making lists of ways to help out with the first crisis and working through the list one item at a time, and mediating between warring factions of my family for the second (I will be traveling with my sleeves rolled up in less than a week to get to work physically on this last one). Not to mention the psycho-spiritual crisis I have been having about how to love unconditionally folks who behave in detestable, life destroying ways. It’s so much easier to push these people out. It’s so much easier to hate. I am immersed in the most challenging of human emotions on a daily basis.

I have not been feeling triggered, particularly, but I think I have established how little my apparent feelings reflect what my mind is experiencing. So, when all is said and done with my extended family crises, no doubt the hauntings will begin afresh.

The only way I can think of to manage my stress in the meantime is through meditation. So, today I set out on a path of intensive daily meditation. When I can’t sit for 30 minutes, I do active meditation for as long as I can when I am alone. (I’m sure there’s a fancy name for it, but I don’t know it. Basically, I go about my business, but slowed down so I can mentally acknowledge every action–turning on the tap; taking the soap; washing hands; rinsing; etc.) It’s been a few hours of that now, and my mind is quieter. Also, it has taken the place of my talking to myself, which is an unexpected but welcome side effect. I shudder to think of how many hours a day I waste in one-sided conversation.

I’ve written before about the intimate relationship between stress and mental health. I am glossing over how my stress level recently has impacted my mental health. But it undoubtedly has. That too was unknown to me until my children started looking at me differently. Children are a great barometer, more sensitive to subtle changes in a carer’s mood than most adults. Anyway, now that I know, I can protect against the potential for a bipolar/borderline episode. I can be more aware of where I allow my thoughts to go and how they impact my behavior towards my nuclear family.

This mess would have been a whole lot messier (at least from my side) had I not had Buddhist teachings to fall on. A long-standing atheist, I could not have known how immensely grateful I would be to have this spiritual structure to lean on, to guide me through these difficult interactions. But the work is still mine to do. And I will do my best to achieve Right Speech and Right Action in the process, rash or no rash.

The right path

There are certain sects of Buddhism that believe that karma binds us more to some of the people in our lives, to the extent that those bonds continue throughout various reincarnations.

I have uncomfortable feelings about reincarnation, but the idea of having a greater karmic connection with some folks sees obvious to me. I believe that all things in our lives play a role in our awakening. They are our teachers, unwittingly offering the challenges we need to develop into our true selves. In my experience, they return us to our path when we’ve meandered. And our meandering most often has to do with the challenges they’ve given us in the first place.

My point is, you start out on what you think is your path with the best of intentions: I will be this kind of mother; I will be that kind of wife. Then the folks you have chosen to walk that path with reveal to you bit by bit—or sometimes in much more significant ways—that you were never on your true path to begin with. They reveal yourself to you, and slowly you discover your footing on the right path.

I find that the most basic lessons take the longest to understand. And by understanding, here, I mean that kind of knowing that feels knitted in your bones—the kind of understanding that makes you realize the truth has always been with you, if only hidden from your view. So, things like how to love unconditionally, the significance of loyalty, the grace of self-sacrifice, the relief that comes with compassion and kindness (both giving and receiving). All the things the sages and prophets have shown us through the millennia, the things we know by heart (but not by bone). These are the fundamentals that take a lifetime to master but that life seems to be all about.

I discovered that for myself one day, trying frantically to unlock the mystery of enlightenment. You see, I had come to believe that the only way I could know how to help my oldest child, the only way I could know how to behave properly to best support my youngest, the only way I could truly be a good partner was to become enlightened, to become a buddha myself. Obviously, I am not enlightened, but these are some of the things I have come to understand from my seeking:

  • There are certain basic concepts that I will struggle to stretch my mind to understand until I realize I don’t need to understand them. I plant the seed, and eventually my understanding will grow in its own time. I think that is the “faith” that most belief systems refer to. It’s a kind of letting go.
  • Enlightenment is not an epiphany; it is the path, the daily practice of being. Like most things of universal value, enlightenment occurs by degrees, almost imperceptibly, through behaving as one who is enlightened.
  • The concept of the not-self is fundamental—there is nothing more distracting from my true path than my ego, my will. This, I think, is also a cornerstone of all belief systems, but one of the most difficult truths to fathom. Because, after all, how do we remove the self-interest from ourselves?

All of this started today with my children arguing—the oldest being mean to the youngest. Half of my cucumber seeds not germinating. Me feeling like an inadequate parent. Waking up to dog shit on the doormat. The potato plants flowering too early. Me uncharacteristically wanting—no, needing—social interaction—like, with people.  Sunny still sitting on her unfertilized eggs.

I more or less violently reject all of these things. I am attached to my idea of how all these things should be. But these things have something else to teach me, I feel, and I can only learn their truth by letting go of my ego, my own thinking about what is right, and recognize that there is something much larger at play here, something that I cannot see all the parts of.

I am fighting with myself about publishing these thoughts, partly because of my irrational fear of exposure, partly because I may be wrong, and partly because I may feel differently tomorrow (and somehow we have come to the strange conclusion that inconsistency is a bad thing). I am having to remind myself that the whole point of this blog was for me to catalog some of my thoughts and experiences before my cognitive functioning disintegrates entirely as part of the fallout from my neuro-eccentricity. I wanted proof, documentation, that I had thoughts, was capable of thinking. I wanted my children to see more than grocery lists for bologna and vodka, like I discovered in my father’s apartment after his death. There is more to us all, and to have only the litter of our choices be our legacy feels incredibly empty to me. But I am fighting with my ego here again. Ultimately, living a good life would leave no trace. Neither Buddha nor Jesus left any writings. So why my preoccupation with leaving evidence that I once had a mind?

Maybe that’s not really my goal. Maybe my goal is to outsource my memory so that in the darkest times to come, I can read this and remember the seasons, my preoccupations, the suffering and the beauty, my humanity. Maybe I am writing in celebration of and to remember living.

Or maybe it’s all more immediate than that. Writing helps me organize my thoughts. It helps me put names to feelings that might otherwise disrupt my mood. Writing for an audience requires me to frame things more positively or, ideally, with humor, and my final thoughts on a subject are then colored by that positivity.

Yes. I like the sound of that one best. I am not having an ego or attachment crisis—just making sense of some of my experiences. And in the process of writing this, it has been revealed to me that all those things that I so violently rejected this morning are simply the stuff of life. Accepting those things and dealing with them with compassion is, in fact, my path.

Belonging

I am preoccupied with thoughts of my eldest child. But hers is not my story to tell, so I’ll talk about Sunny and belonging—two topics which, on the surface, seem completely unrelated.

Sunny is my most fussy chicken. She’s a fancy French breed with a noisy call and five toes and feathered feet. She reminds me a bit of a country music star—yodeling, fringed, and spangled.

The days are lengthening, so Sunny is trying to make her unfertilized eggs hatch. She has spent three days cooped up in the nesting boxes, taking only a few minutes each day to scarf down some peas, gargle some water, and shout at the other girls, who are not so shaken up by their hormones. Today, I locked her out of her nesting box for the morning, and returned to the chicken yard to find that she had flown the coop—into the children’s play yard.

I can only say that I am incredibly grateful that my fence is so high, so that nobody could watch the spectacle of me trying to round up a temperamental, broody hen. In short, she’s back in the chicken yard, the nesting boxes are open for service again, and I have no idea what I will find when I next make it through the orchard to chat with the chickens.

Hormones make us crazy. I’m sure that’s a loaded statement, but I mean to discharge such a load. Hormones make us so blind to how things really are that we can view a loved one trying to help us as an assailant trying to cause us harm. They can make us obsess fruitlessly until our feathers are dull. They can reveal aspects of our personality that we don’t even recognize as part of ourselves. And all the while, everyone watching from afar knows what it is and that it will pass, though we do not.

I have read and watched many biographies of folks with bipolar, and there are a few common threads among all those fraught stories: namely, the age of the first (albeit, mild) episode and the feeling from childhood of being apart, an alien, or in the wrong family—basically, of not belonging.

I’ve covered the first in my Sunny illustration. The doctors believe bipolar first reveals itself at adolescence. But you ask any parent or sufferer, and they will likely tell you that the turning point was closer to nine or ten. The flood of hormones that occurs at adolescence only amplifies the potential that has been there for years.

The second is significant because I believe you cannot achieve mental health without a sense of belonging to something, someone, or someplace. This is the relational connectedness I talked about in an earlier post. And folks with bipolar seem predisposed to feel that they do not belong—and in fact, our difference unfortunately makes it so in so many cases.

I remember a time a few years back when I was in corpse pose following root chakra yoga. There came a point in the deep relaxation of all of my muscles when the instructor said something like relax into the Earth; know that you are welcome; know that you belong; know that you are home. I burst into an ecstatic fit of tears, grieving for my poor lost self that had struggled for so many years, and elated that I had found my place; I had inhabited my place all along.

That new sense of belonging to this world was crucial for my awakening (or maybe a result of it). In any case, I felt reborn. I had spent so much time fighting against everyone and even myself, and all because I felt I did not belong, that no one wanted me. And once that sense of belonging was intact, I was free to begin building my life, truly, for the first time. Previously, I had been going through the motions, and then regularly tearing down all that I had built. Belonging meant I could now build with stones instead of paper.

My worry is that you cannot bring another to a sense of belonging. Perhaps you can offer her comfort or respite along the way. And hope she doesn’t succumb to oblivion-seeking behaviors in the meantime. But there is no magic word, no perfect touch to help someone realize that she already belongs. I make a habit of saying to my children that they belong to me, to our family, to our community. That they have an important role to play in this world. That they could have come into existence at only one point in the history of the universe, and that makes them magnificent beings with significant work to do here—that we need them. And I hope, with skin-tingling, hand-shaking effort, that those words find their way into their bones.

My eldest child’s struggles are by no means new. But it is the first time she is experiencing them. And it is deeply troubling to come to this point, after decades of personal struggle and suffering, and still not be able to give her what she needs to find her way. We can inherit our parent’s shame, but not their wisdom. It seems that wisdom is something we can only gain through first-hand experience. And with hormones beginning to mold my child into an adult, I once again find myself battening down the hatches in preparation for an incredible storm.

Being

Years ago, before I was a mother, back when depression offered no possibility of joy within the darkness, an acupuncturist from China suggested that I simply fix my mind on positivity when I woke up in the morning. He was treating me for depression. At the time, I thought he was crazy, or that maybe people in China don’t get depressed.

Fix my mind?

But somewhere along the way, perhaps during the period of awakening following my breakdown, I began to understand his meaning. Because nothing is as it seems, everything can be something else. That is to say, my daughter’s rejection of me yesterday was in fact a natural step along her path. It was not a rejection at all for her, but an acceptance of the magnetic pull of the external world. My job was and is to let go.

Fix my mind.

I chose—yes, chose—not to descend. I did make it back to the school to have lunch with my younger child. I deleted my dragon game (all games, for that matter) from my phone. I made it out this morning to collect my meds. I planted out some sad plants that had been crying to extend their roots. I rubbed sandalwood oil on my third eye point. I meditated. I laughed to myself that my doctor—so square he’s a cube—prescribed daily yoga and meditation for me, out of respect for the things that he knows keep me balanced. I opened my heart.

I am fixing my mind on positivity. I am focusing on one task at a time. I will make my children dinner this evening—a dinner that doesn’t involve the microwave or leaving a tip. I am choosing to smack that black dog on its ass, and laugh as it runs, whimpering, back to the shadows.

At least I hope that’s what I’m doing. But if that Chinese doctor is to be believed, if Buddha was really on to something, perhaps it is a simple matter of fixing my mind and seeing things as they really are. Ending suffering by not suffering.

Black dog

My anxieties are up. I’m afraid of too many things to name, and the fear is paralyzing. I haven’t been out of the house much without my crew (partner and/or children), and have consequently racked up a fair number of jobs that are waiting to be done.

They’ll have to wait another day because it seems my resilience is also at an ebb. I went to my children’s school today to have lunch with my girls, first my neuro-eccentric eldest, and second with my affectionate youngest. I set my alarm so I would be sure to stop whatever I was doing and get in the car at the right time. I packed a bag of dried mango (I’ve not had much appetite lately) and a can of fizzy water. And I set off, excited to surprise my girls, who seemed disappointed when I told them earlier that I thought I couldn’t make it to lunch with them today.

Long story short, I was at the school for 20 minutes, just long enough to watch my eldest eat a small portion of her lunch and pretend to be someone else. Who was this child who had swallowed my intensely empathetic little girl? And then, she dismissed me. She said that it wasn’t every day that she got to have lunch with her mates, and wanted me to pack it in so she could hang out at the soccer goal with the boys.

I couldn’t force her to be with me if she didn’t want to, so I left. It was a full hour before the lunchtime of my youngest, so I knew I wouldn’t make it to lunch with her. I knew I wouldn’t make it to the pharmacy afterwards to pick up my meds. I really just wanted to go home. I needed to be home.

It’s not the sadness that hurts as much as the burn of invisibility or unimportance. My fears force me to withdraw and then I’m upset by the fact that nobody can see me and that nobody cares.

I know what this is. This is the start of a nasty depression. It’s just so strange how my depressive episodes have changed over time, allowing me now to feel joy and even positive emotions for a time, allowing me to think I’m doing well or at least on the right track, before sending me swirling down into bleak contemplation of my nothingness. So, these days, I almost don’t know when a depression is descending. I can still laugh. My heart can even soar (this, most often with plants). And so I fail to see it coming.

But then: Did I hurt your feelings, mama? Yes. Oh, well, bye then. Yes. Bye. And–oh!–here we go again.

By the time I recognize it, the black dog has got its teeth sunk down to the bone.

It will be interesting to view this through a Buddhist lens. But on some other day.

Snail meditation

I am a gardener—an amateur horticulturist and botanist, if you will. I grow fruits and vegetables and, apparently, snails. This is the first year that I have gardened without a nemesis. Aphids, squash bugs, cabbage moths, ants have all been the target of my wrath at one point or another. This year, I have been preoccupied with snails, treating them with a fury I didn’t particularly feel, and which always made me wonder how one could simultaneously grow food and be a Buddhist.

This morning was one of those magical spring mornings after a night’s rain. My youngest and I were up before the sun, letting the chickens out in the blue light. The air was paradoxically heavy and fresh, as if an accumulation of the sighs of all plantlife. The sense of connection to all things was so great, I was subtly aware that I was swimming in a womb of the universe.

When I made my usual rounds of the gardens, I found an incredible number of snails devouring my succulents, peas, garlic, asparagus, and even relaxing in my garden furniture and sliding up the walls of my house. I got my snail jar to collect them all, something I’d started using since holding them in my hand forced me to feel their life energy and made sending them to their deaths that much harder.

In the process of gathering up a pint-sized salsa jar full of snails, I came face to face with a particularly tenacious one, which had oozed up the side of the jar and peeked out to explore its path to freedom. I held it close to my face and seemed to recognize something in it. I can’t quite describe what exactly that was, only that, at that moment, I was aware that I was no more or less than it was. That we were both essential to the universe. I felt something shift deep inside me, and I wondered why it had taken me so long to feel something so obvious.

The thing is, this is central to everything. To letting go of ego. To understanding the connectedness of all things. To walking the right path. That such a lesson should come from a snail rather than from the words of the many sages and scholars I’ve read somehow seems fitting.

After all that, the chickens enjoyed their morning snail snack and I got no closer to reconciling gardening with Buddhism.

Routine

I am just emerging from a haze induced by three weeks of disrupted routine and augmented by oblivion-seeking behaviors involving a dragon video game. I am rediscovering the value of routine in helping me to manage myself emotionally and practically.

My partner replaced our  fence on his three-week holiday from work. Which means that there were at least three days when our private lives were completely exposed. I had not realized what an intensely private person I am, how much I perceive exposure as a danger. I banned the use of all overhead lights at night. I found myself retreating to my cave of bedcovers day and night. (It occurred to me at the time that the bear is my spirit animal.) I became super sensitive to everything; anxious in all situations outside of my curtained room. And I lost the fight against my oblivion-seeking self.

It didn’t help that there was disruptive news from extended family. Deeply troubling, and particularly upsetting to me with no routine to anchor me to this life. I floated away.

No yoga, meditation, writing, or painting. My third eye closed. I kept up only with my plants, perhaps more as a way to feel I had accomplished something at the end of each day. Or maybe just because I felt most comfortable with plants. Anything or anyone requiring more than a gentle chat and a watering felt like an awful lot of stress.

My cognitive functioning is a wreck. I am misplacing words and names in almost every sentence. I am hearing music again in white noise—samba from the vacuum cleaner; a violin ensemble from the spring winds. I am smelling stale piss, burnt garlic, and dog shit, and removing things from the house which seem, at the time, to be the source of the odors. Of course, the odors are merely hallucinations. I refuse to take anti-psychotics ever again, but that means that reality can get pretty squishy in high-stress situations. Without a routine.

And maybe that’s where our tendency to seek out oblivion comes from: maybe folks with bipolar are trying to slow things down, quiet our minds, grow some skin—in short, manage our stress before the rush of mania or psychosis sweeps us off our feet. It seems counter-intuitive that we should choose activities that ultimately make us lose control (drugs, alcohol, dragon video games) in an attempt to take control of ourselves. But maybe it’s not really about control, but about having a buffer between the world and us. Because, at such times, we are skinless–we feel everything with excrutiating intensity. And we just need it to stop. Bear in a trap. No time for thinking things through.

At least with oblivion-seeking behaviors we have chosen our outcome. And we no longer notice so acutely all the noise in our heads. Yes, self-medicating mental anguish, and all that. Not condoning, just explaining.

Anyway. The importance of routine. Bipolar tendencies for oblivion-seeking behaviors. Disruption and skinlessness. Stress. It’s all connected.

The revolt

My children, the weather, the dog have all turned on me. In my hour of need.

We are in the home stretch of my partner’s absence, and it’s as if the universe is collapsing, just in time for my partner to swoop in and pick up the pieces. Which is completely unfair, since I have been a champion for the last two weeks: making all meals (mostly from scratch); getting my children to and from school and activities with no assistance; sticking to a schedule and getting to bed most nights at a reasonable hour; more or less keeping my house clean, including doing the dishes on an almost daily basis. You know, tasks that are normal for you but Herculean for me. And the thing is, I have enjoyed it. I am finding purpose in pedestrian productivity.

But in the last few days, I suppose the stress has caught up with us all. I have had some visuals and a feeling that my blood is vibrating. The condensation on the inside of the greenhouse has turned my tomato seedlings’ tropical paradise into a refrigerator. The dog leaves me a shitty gift on the doormat every single morning and then expects me to feed her before all others. My eldest refuses to wear a coat because the weight of it prevents her from taking flight at recess, or something.

And the biggest stain on my successful run as a lone parent: On Saturday, my youngest jumped off a trampoline and landed on her forehead. Can’t quite figure out how she managed it because there is a safety net encircling the trampoline. I suppose I should be writing about the pointlessness of safety nets—literal and figurative. Anyway, she couldn’t have helped it, and it really was quite scary for all of us—a concussion, no matter how mild, is never delightful. But the worst part was her insistence that her injury was more severe than it was. It was like she was hoping for the worst-case scenario, claiming symptoms that she expected would land her in the hospital. She reminded me of me. And frankly, that scares me.

But the faultiness of safety nets and the heritability of parental flaws is not under discussion today.

It is the revolt—of human, beast, and nature—the high stakes conspiracy that the universe has orchestrated for my edification—that is the subject of my thoughts. And the fact that I am still standing and even laughing about it, planning to get on with my housework as soon as I rattle this off, is a testament to the fact that I am winning. This long, slow recovery from breakdown—now in its fifth year—may very well be shifting into a new gear, the pace of life becoming more delightfully challenging. I am buzzing with excitement. I have in mind an image of a world-weary woman standing on a hilltop in a thunderstorm, face and arms lifted, laughing hysterically, and challenging the lightning to strike.

That old saying that the universe gives us only what we can handle? It’s true.